When Kevin McKenna worked as an assistant basketball coach at Creighton in the 1990s, he avoided the topic of television exposure when recruiting.
"There wasn't much to talk about then," said McKenna, now coach at Indiana State. "Now you can tell them you're on a bunch."
In large part, coaches can thank ESPNU and commissioner Doug Elgin. ESPNU's growth is taking its package of at least eight MVC games a season into more homes. Started in 2005, ESPNU is in 66 million homes (ESPN and ESPN2 are both around 99 million). Elgin helped the MVC improve its visibility when he refused to sign a lesser deal and leveraged the groundbreaking 2005-06 season into more appearances on the ESPN family, and the tournament title game on CBS.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall believes in the power of the U after Tuesday's win over No. 20 Northern Iowa.
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"I got more calls, texts, e-mails after the Northern Iowa game than I've gotten since I've been here," he said. "It got great run with people back east, and people I know."
Combine the MVC's 19 (more depending on BracketBusters) appearances on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU with the regional appearances on Fox Sports and local packages, and coaches feel good about TV as a recruiting chip. They no longer go into home feeling hopelessly outmatched by higher-profile schools. They believe the MVC's TV is as good or better than similar conferences. They can tell players and their families their team will be on TV often. They can tell recruits to check out the atmosphere at their arenas.
"It's really changed," Creighton coach Dana Altman said. "A lot of that credit goes to our fans. ESPN doesn't want to show empty buildings."
WSU can testify. The Shockers, who finished in a tie for fifth last season, enjoy four home games on ESPNU, more than any other school. The schedule is heavy on the MVC's better home atmospheres _ Creighton, Southern Illinois and Illinois State. When ESPN programmers questioned putting WSU on against Northern Iowa, Valley officials championed Koch Arena and the team's rising talent. Their faith paid off with the nation's first meeting of 16-win teams and a competitive game in a sold-out arena.
The Valley's deal with ESPN expires in 2010-11, which means this is a big season for protecting its TV time. Another one-bid performance for the NCAA Tournament hurts the Valley's negotiating stance. It's a nervous time for conferences not affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series. With goliaths such as the SEC gobbling up TV slots, there may be fewer to go around.
TV is helping the Valley. In March, the Valley needs to help itself with a strong performance in the NCAA Tournament.
Indoor comforts — Wichita State's baseball team is making itself at home in its new indoor practice building. The Shockers are working in small groups, leading up to the start of practice on Jan. 31.
On Thursday, three groups of players hit in the retractable cages. A fourth group practiced bunting on the infield, learning how the ball will roll on the artificial turf at Eck Stadium.
"You can get a good feel for bunting," coach Gene Stephenson said. "It's hard to do that inside a cage."
Beyond avoiding bad weather, efficiency may be the greatest gift from the field house. In the past, players burned a lot of time while others hit in the two indoor batting cages. When scheduled workouts move along more quickly, it leaves more time for players to put in extra time on their skills.
"You're doing something the whole time," outfielder Bret Bascue said. "Before, it would be sit and wait for your group to hit."
Bascue noticed more players working out on their own in recent days.
"Any time you have something new, it attracts people," he said. "Some people hate to play catch in the cold."
* The building does lack one significant item — restrooms.
Stephenson said restrooms were omitted because they are planned for the next phase of improvements to Eck Stadium. That plan calls for the WSU locker room to connect to the indoor facility, with restrooms in between the two areas.
Athletes use the visiting locker room or the umpire dressing room, both a few steps away in the building that houses the Eck Stadium ticket office.
"It hasn't been an issue," softball coach Mike Perniciaro said.
* Freshman outfielder Micah Green didn't play in the field during much of fall practices because of a shoulder injury. He is throwing and hitting with no pain.
"He looks good," assistant coach Jim Thomas said.
On top of tennis — WSU women's tennis player Lutfiana Budiharto is ranked No. 1 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Central Region.
Budiharto, a sophomore from Indonesia, went 25-6 as a freshman, 3-1 against ranked opponents.
Stephanie Dalmacio is No. 13 and Lenore Lazaroiu is No. 20. The doubles team of Dalmacio and Budiharto is No. 8.
The Shockers open the season Thursday at Creighton.